American diplomacy lost a man who weighed with authority on the Euro-Atlantic partnership, at a point in time when this relationship is being remoulded. Georgia lost a friend and an anchor to the West, precisely at a moment where we still wander in a changing geopolitical sea without a rudder. Ambassador John Kornblum will be missed.
I first met John in Helsinki, in 1991, while I was serving as the Deputy Foreign Minister of the newly independent Republic of Georgia. We were taking the first steps towards the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), or what East and West could agree would be a foundational common security foundation for Europe. He was leading the US delegation and I watched him shoot down one Russian position after another on how Europe’s security landscape should be constructed, with particular reference to the South Caucasus. He wanted to build a new Europe, with Russia, but a clear sense of direction, set by Washington.
We live in an equally momentous period of European history, only we are less aspirational and much less confident about the future. John’s confidence and certainty that we can and should stand on the right side of history will be missed as much as his counsel and experience.
I met Ambassador Kornblum again in 2009, at the Euro-Atlantic Security Initiative (EASI), organized by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The gathering brought together “East and West” – diplomats, generals, think-tankers, business leaders from the United States, Canada, Europe, but also Russia and the post-Soviet space to find, yet again, a modus vivendi. The proverbial question was how to work with Russia. Led by John some of us tried to uphold and convince the EASI group that nobody in this unsettled world would have a “cooperative Russia” as a partner till Russia herself did not settle and fix her relations with her former satellites, currently independent and sovereign states. Alas, our ideas have not been fully received and supported by EASI and John Kornblum did not sign the EASI final document. The passionate statements and interventions made by John Kornblum at the EASI sessions still echoing and resonating in my ears, especially now after Russia’s brutal invasion in Ukraine.
I remember asking him at the time whether he would help the newly emerging “Georgian Dream Coalition” (GD) to navigate through the semi-authoritarian Saakashvili regime to a concert of democratic nations in Europe. He led the way, introducing the GD “transition team” to different European and US leaders and opinion-makers and organizations, and thus pointing us towards the first peaceful electoral transition from one government to another in Georgia. We made it. John admired Georgia, especially its civil society, however, he was critical and even sarcastic regarding Georgia’s entire political class, be it the party in power or the opposition, especially for the obsession over their own personalistic power and misjudging, misinterpreting Georgia’s strategic context and value. I still keep in my files John’s one of the last messages: “Tedo, I will continue to do my best for Georgia. I only wish your politicians would do the same”.
Ambassador Kornblum rarely hesitated or regretted, even when faced with unintended consequences. With the benefit of hindsight, he would often point out that we should have heeded his advice earlier. As audacious as this sounds, I tend to agree. He was generous, insightful, a friend and an anchor to Georgia where it matters: in Washington, Berlin, and Brussels. That confident sense of direction is now absent. We have fewer people willing to lend Georgia their gravitas, keeping us on a western trajectory. The compass of his counsel will be missed but I hope we can still find our way.
Tedo Japaridze is a former ambassador to the US and ex-Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia.